Modern Indian Historiography (British India & Indian nationalist historiography)

Recovery of ancient Indian history

One of the positive results of the British conquest of India was the recovery of ancient Indian history on modern lines of historiography.

The history of the seven or eight hundred years prior to the British advent had been duly written and preserved.

But for the typical Hindu view of life there were no genuine historical records on ancient India that the men of the East India Company could rely upon.

Except for Yudhishtira and Mahanandi referred to in the puranas, the numerous kings that are mentioned in the above text are unknown, with no references to them found in any other work.

It is with "Robert Orme's two works that British historiography on India begins.

The two works are "A History of the Military Transactions of the British Nation in Indostan from the year 1745" published in 1764, and Historical Fragments of the Mughal Empire, of the Marathas and of the English Concerns in Indostan from M.Dc. LIX.

"Francis Gladwin's" History of Hindustan (1783) covered the reigns of Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangazeb.

William Robertson's "Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India (1792)", was an attempt to gather information on ancient India as preserved in the works of Greek and Roman classical authors from Herodotus and Megasthenes.

In 1784, Wilkins's Bhagavad Gita, the first direct translation of a Sanskrit work into English, was completed.

William Jones (1746—1794 AD)

Sir William Jones was a British philologist, a puisne judge on the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal.

He was also a scholar of ancient India, particularly known for his proposition of the existence of a relationship among European and Indo-Aryan languages, which later came to be known as the Indo-European languages.

Jones is also credited for establishing the Asiatic Society of Bengal in the year 1784.

Jones was the first to propose the concept of an "Aryan invasion" into the Indian subcontinent, which according to Jones led to a lasting ethnic division in India between descents of indigenous Indians and those of the Aryans.

He believed that Egyptian priests had migrated and settled down in India in prehistoric times.

He also posited that the Chinese were originally Hindus belonging to the Kshatriya caste.

Jones was a contributor to Hyde's Notebooks during his term on the bench of the Supreme Court of Judicature.

James Prinsep (1799–1840)

James Prinsep was an English scholar, orientalist and antiquary.

He was the founding editor of the Journal of the "Asiatic Society of Bengal" and is best remembered for deciphering the Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts of ancient India.

He studied, documented and illustrated many aspects of numismatics, metallurgy, meteorology apart from pursuing his career in India as an assay master at the mint in Benares.

As a result of Prinsep's work as an editor of the Asiatic Society's journal, coins and copies of inscriptions were transmitted to him from all over India, to be deciphered, translated, and published.

In 1785, he deciphered the Gupta Brahmi characters of some Gaya inscriptions thereby revealing the history of the Maukharis who ruled Gaya in the first half of the sixth century AD.

The pattern of research which Prinsep created by his example may be seen in his "Indian Antiquities (1858)", a posthumous edition of his history.

Alexander Cunningham (1814-1893)

Alexander Cunningham was a British Army engineer with the Bengal Engineer Group who later took an interest in the history and archaeology of India.

In 1861, he was appointed to the newly created position of archaeological surveyor to the government of India; and he founded and organised what later became the Archaeological Survey of India.

He wrote numerous books and monographs and made extensive collections of artefacts.

Some of his collections were lost, but most of the gold and silver coins and a fine group of Buddhist sculptures and jewellery were bought by the British Museum in 1894.

He had conducted excavations at Sarnath in 1837 along with Colonel F. C. Maisey and made careful drawings of the sculptures.

In 1842 he excavated at Sankassa and at Sanchi in 1851.

In 1854, he published "The Bhilsa Topes", a piece of work which attemped to establish the history of Buddhism based on architectural evidence.

Historiography of British India

The first important history of India came not from the orientalists (scholars, bureaucrats, and politicians) but from their great opponent "James Mill", an official of the East India Company in London.

James Mill (1773-1836 AD)

James Mill was a Scottish historian, economist, political theorist, and philosopher.

He is counted among the founders of the Ricardian school of economics.

He also wrote "The History of British India (1817)" and was one of the prominent historians to take colonial approach.

He was the first writer to divide Indian history into three parts: Hindu, Muslim and British, a classification which has proved surpassingly influential in the field of Indian historical studies.

Mill was a proponent (advocate) of British imperialism, justifying it on utilitarian (उपयोगी) grounds.

He considered it part of a civilizing mission for Britain to impose its rule on India.

Mill portrayed Indian society as morally degraded and argued that Hindus had never possessed "a high state of civilisation."

Mill maintained that from the coming of the Aryans to the arrival of the British, Indian society had remained substantially unchanged.

Mountstuart Elphinstone (1779–1859 AD)

Mountstuart Elphinstone was a Scottish statesman and historian, associated with the government of British India.

He later became the Governor of Bombay where he is credited with the opening of several educational institutions accessible to the Indian population.

Besides being a noted administrator, he wrote books on India and Afghanistan.

Mill's work, he felt, though ingenious, original and elaborate, was not candid in its Hindu and Muhammadan parts.

Feeling it his duty to combat it, in 1834 Elphinstone began work on the "History of Hindu and Muhammadan India".

In the very year of its publication, 1841, Elphinstone's History came into use for the benefit of the "Indian Civil Service cadets" and the author was hailed as the Tacitus of India.

Mill's History was based solely on European evidence, much of which was casual. Elphinstone rightly felt that a work written using native sources might come to different conclusions.

The British - both the government and the people – were more inclined to take Mill's, and not Elphinstone's view of the Indians.

James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-1894 AD)

James Stephen was an English lawyer, judge, writer, and philosopher.

One of the most famous critics of "John Stuart Mill", Stephen achieved prominence as a philosopher, law reformer, and writer.

His book "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873)" sought to give a firm moral basis to the British rule in India.

Henry Maine (1822-1888 AD)

Henry Maine was a British Whig comparative jurist and historian.

He is famous for the thesis outlined in his book "Ancient Law" that law and society developed "from status to contract."

According to the thesis, in the ancient world individuals were tightly bound by status to traditional groups, while in the modern one, in which individuals are viewed as autonomous agents, they are free to make contracts and form associations with whomever they choose.

Because of this thesis, Maine can be seen as one of the forefathers of modern legal anthropology, legal history and sociology of law.

Maine fully accepted the "Aryan theory" and believed that even the Indian village community was an Aryan institution surviving in full vigor.

But he employed the theory not in India’s favor but only as a justification of Britain's dominion.

Talboys Wheeler (1824-1897 AD)

James Talboys Wheeler was a bureaucrat-historian of the British Raj.

Wheeler was privately educated and then attempted an unsuccessful career as a publisher and bookseller before venturing into authorship of student handbooks.

Wheeler was Assistant Secretary to the Government of India's Foreign Department, and later Secretary to the Chief Commissioner, British Burma.

His five-volume "History of India from the Earliest Times" blamed India's failure to develop nationalities on the tyranny of the Brahman priesthood.

W.H. Moreland (1868–1938)

William Harrison Moreland may be looked upon as the last important British administrator-historian of India.

Born in northern Ireland and educated at Cambridge, Moreland joined the Indian Civil Service as Director of Land Records and Agriculture in what is now United Provinces.

His special field was Indian agricultural economy.

Moreland's first book, "Agriculture of the United Provinces (1904)", was followed in 1911 by the "Revenue Administration of the United Provinces".

From "Akbar to Aurangazeb", a work, which Moreland published in 1931, defended European activities in India.

Indian nationalist historiography

The really educated Indians did not want Western civilization to displace their own as "Macaulay" and the missionaries had wanted; they only wanted the West to revitalize Indian culture as "Ram Mohun Roy" had desired.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee asserted that - as a means of creating a sense of unity, national pride and desire for freedom, there was nothing more fundamental than the study and writing of history.

The task that the first generation of modern Indian historians had to perform was to defend their culture and civilization against the British imperialist attack.

James Mill's five-hundred page account of "Hindu civilization" tried to prove that "the Hindu excelled in the qualities of the slave".

The trend that Mill set was followed by most British historians of India.

Indian nationalist historiography, growing partly in reaction to the pretensions and prejudices of British imperialist histpriography on India, was at root concerned with national identity in the pre-colonial period.